Sunday, 8 October 2017

A Postcard from India - 6, Calcutta - the people in the street

Much of my recent time in India was inspired by books. Nowhere more so than Calcutta, or Kolkata as it is now known. Amit Chaudhuri's "Calcutta - Two Years in the City" and a photographic book - "Calcutta - Chitpur Road Neighbourhoods" both of which focus on North Kolkata excited my interest in this city of almost 15 million people and made me long to walk its streets.


Once home to wealthy merchants and the focus of the Bengali cultural renaissance of the 19th and 20th centuries, North Kolkata is now the site of crumbling mansions and forgotten palaces, its former glory fading rapidly. Despite this, I quickly grew to love this part of the city, initially because of the architecture. Decaying buildings can be photogenic, but interesting as the old palaces, mansions and colonial era buildings are, I soon realised that the most interesting thing about this neighbourhood and the  city is its people.

On the day of my arrival, I hired a driver to take me to some of the streets photographed in the Chitpur Road book. I began in Zakaria Street, a predominantly Muslim enclave whose landscape is dominated by the Nakhoda mosque. I was immediately struck by the number of people in the streets, the chaotic activity as hand pulled rickshaws, delivery vehicles, tuk-tuks, street stalls, pedestrians and the occasional animal powered vehicle competed for space. It was difficult to know where to point the camera first and I was unsure how people would react to being photographed. I had no need to worry as not one person refused a request for a picture and indeed, some came forward to ask that I photograph them too once they saw the camera.



The "price" of a photograph was often a short chat with people interested to know where I was from, what I was doing, how long I would be in the city and where else I would see in India. This was almost always accompanied by invitations to drink masala chai purchased from a chaiwallah, one of hundreds, possibly thousands of street tea sellers.

One such invitation came in a lane leading from Zakaria Street to neighbouring Tarachand Dutta Street. I noticed a sign for a dry-cleaners bearing the service legend "Ordinary 4 days, semi-urgent 2 days". No urgent service then. A group of men were sitting in front of the sign and I asked if they wouldn't mind allowing me to photograph it. "No problem" came the reply before one Javed Uddin stepped forward, introduced himself as the owner of a delivery business and offered me the obligatory chai. His friend's daughter had been married the day before and I was also given sweets from the wedding. Before we parted he told me to visit the city again and that if I had any problems in Kolkata I should come and see him. He could help. People knew him. I photographed him standing beside a motorbike in the doorway to his home. He liked the picture.

In the same side street a young moustachioed man wearing a blue shirt and checked lungi asked me if I wanted to take his picture. His work mates came out to see what was happening which resulted in the picture below. I also photographed blue shirt separately. He asked "am I handsome?". Who could say no?



Still in North Kolkata, I met Mohan Lal a chaiwallah operating a stall on Beadon Street. It is Mohan's portrait at the top of this post. I was struck by the bright green of the wall behind him, the red of the garland and cloth and the crisp white of his overall. He had a long queue of people waiting to buy chai as well as several customers sitting on a long bench already enjoying their drinks. One of his customers, a Mister Singh, originally from Bihar invited me to drink tea and told me that Mohan had been selling chai here for many years.

Not far from Mohan's stall I was again struck by bright colours. A family were selling wada - a deep fried savoury snack. The smell was enticing but the deep red backdrop was the thing that I first noticed. As I got closer the father offered me a wada and said "please sir, take one picture of my son". I suggested I photograph them together and that mum join the picture too. Mum could not be persuaded so it was just dad and son. The picture below tells their story.


People in this city work hard. Market porters carry enormous amounts of fruit, vegetables, fish and other items to be sold at the wholesale markets without the use of machinery taken for granted in the western world. I witnessed amazing sites at one of the bazaars as eight men unloaded a massive consignment of vegetables which could have weighed anything up to 400 kilos, perhaps more. The goods were taken from a delivery truck and loaded onto the heads of four porters who moving in absolute unison carried them into the market, walking over wet, muddy ground. No machinery involved, just strength and co-ordination. Breathtaking.

Kolkata is the only city in India that still has hand pulled rickshaws. Many of the men involved in this work come from Bihar, one of the poorer states. Generally the rickshaw pullers are physically small and lean yet manage to pull not only passengers of all shapes and sizes but also enormous piles of shopping purchased in the various bazaars.  I was told the work is all about balance rather than strength but it still looks like a severe test of strength to me. A few years ago the city authorities moved to outlaw hand pulled rickshaws but the drivers protested saying that lacking qualifications or training they had no other work and the ban was not enacted. I understand that there are now proposals to introduce battery powered rickshaws.



It was touching to watch these men enjoying brief rest in the afternoon, reclining on the rested rickshaws, chatting to each other or in some cases talking on mobile phones, enjoying brief contact with relatives in their home town or looking at family photographs. I photographed several groups of rickshaw pullers and porters at rest and was struck by the obvious bonds of friendship and the expressions of deep thought, perhaps wondering about life back in Bihar or another home state.



Still with the bazaars, I got up very early one day during my time in Kolkata so that I could see the early morning activity at the wholesale markets. In addition to the early hour, heavy rain commenced just before I left my hotel and continued throughout the three hours I spent in the markets photographing the traders, porters and customers. 

Even in the poor light, I was struck by the brilliant colours of the produce, the backdrops and the clothes of the people. Few tourists come here and I was free to wander, watch, chat and take pictures, both candid and more formal. At one point I heard raucous laughter coming from one side of the fish market. A woman had placed a plastic bag on her head as protection from the rain, provoking much amusement amongst the neighbouring merchants and their customers. I looked across the market, saw her and began to snap. Once she noticed the camera she began to play up, wave and laugh before assuming a more serious pose, resulting in a great set of pictures.




The market is alive with the constant activity of deliveries, porters rushing about with piles of produce and the banter of negotiation between sellers and buyers. The bargaining activity is fascinating to watch as both parties assume a role, employing comments and facial expressions to either preserve their original price or to secure something cheaper. I watched one woman turning over several fish, turning her face up at them and implying that the quality was not good as a way of influencing the price before making her purchases. Her performance must have been convincing as she left looking happy.

The same woman also bought fish from a delightful married couple who asked me to take their picture together. The husband held up a large fish and invited me to photograph it. Clearly proud of the produce, the couple smiled and I clicked, just before water began to pour through the ceiling and on to the head of his wife. She jumped up and fled whilst he continued to hold up the fish and extoll its many virtues.

The market is home to many characters including the porters pictured below, the first of whom winked at me after being photographed and the second who clad in a fabulous polka dot vest, drew himself up, dragged on his cigarette and posed defiantly.



I loved Kolkata's bazaars and was fascinated by the people, the produce and the constant activity and interaction. But ordinary life elsewhere in the city is just as interesting. An early morning walk down to the river - the Hooghly - gave me the opportunity to see hundreds of Hindus stepping into the water, engaging priests for guidance on carrying out rituals and offering prayers for family members that had already passed away. The day before I had been to a barber's shop and cut off my little bit of hair. I was wearing a long, white, collarless shirt which could easily be taken for a panjabi, and in fact was as one of the priests asked me if I had come to enter the water - mistaking me for one of the devotees because of my appearance.



Back on the streets of North Kolkata, a set of beautifully carved wooden doors leading to the courtyard of an old residential building proved to be a wonderful setting for a photograph of a Hindu woman in a brightly coloured sari, whilst taking shelter from the rain under an awing in College Street provided me with a photograph of four elegant women leaving the famed Indian Coffee House and sheltering under their umbrellas.


Kolkata does not attract the numbers of foreign visitors received by Mumbai, Rajasthan or Kerala. it should. It is home to many buildings and institutions important to the history of the country including the Indian Museum with its major ethnographical, archaeological and art collections, the Victoria Memorial and many, many temples, mosques and gurdwaras. It is also home to almost 15 million people who make the city the astonishing place that it is.

Note - the city is now formally known as Kolkata although many people still use the old name too. I have used "Kolkata" in this post except when referring to two books that have used the old name in their titles. 

Several of the pictures in this post were taken during an early morning tour of the wholesale markets with Calcutta Photo Tours. Private and group tours can be arranged to a variety of locations.

You might also like  A Postcard From India - 2, The People of Spice Alley, Mumbai's Lalbaug Market

You can see more pictures of India here.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Mumbai Art Deco

Mumbai has one of the world's largest collections of art deco architecture. This includes apartment blocks, offices, cinemas and hotels built from the early 1930's until the beginning of the 1950's. The style lasted a little longer here than in many other countries. In recent years, interest in these buildings has grown, in no small part due to the excellent work of Art Deco Mumbai - an organisation devoted to documenting, promoting and where possible, protecting this part of the city's built heritage.

Fairlawn, details unknown
During the 1930's Mumbai's expanding population, particularly that of its educated middle class, created demand for new housing. One response to this pressure was the Backbay Land Reclamation Scheme, carried out between 1928 and 1942, reclaiming land from the sea and stimulating extensive building programmes.  Many of the new homes were built in the Art Deco style and clustered Marine Drive (now renamed Nataji Subhas Chandra Bose Road) and Queens Road (now Maharishi Karve Road) in Churchgate. Planning regulations of the City Improvement Trust ensured a uniformity of height and materials whilst architects expressed their creativity through incorporating classic Art Deco elements representing modernity as well  as motifs from the ancient world.

Many of the residential units were commissioned by wealthy Mumbai merchants and industrialists as well Indian princes and other aristocrats who visited the city for shopping, to attend important events or as a departure point for travel abroad. The heyday of Art Deco coincided with the first generation of Indian born architects, many of whom had trained abroad, including in London where they received accreditation from the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). These young Indians were responsible for many Art Deco structures whilst others were designed by their British contemporaries working in India.

Decay but with signs of hope on Marine Drive
I recently visited Mumbai and was able to see some of these wonderful buildings. It was encouraging to see how many of them have been lovingly cared for but also worrying to see the poor condition of others. Deterioration is due to both environmental and economic issues. Marine Drive in particular is exposed to the climatic challenges of the Arabian Sea, requiring regular and robust maintenance which in a number of cases has not taken place. Many of the large apartment blocks facing the sea have also been subject to "improvement" or "modernisation". This includes replacing original windows with more robust, cheaper materials and closing off balconies, presumably to gain additional internal space and to protect the interior from the elements and noise from the street.

Another issue for the apartment blocks in particular is the existence of fixed rental agreements dating back decades. These make it very difficult if not impossible for the owners to raise sufficient capital to carry out large-scale  maintenance. However, it is not all bad news as strolling the length of Marine Drive I saw much evidence of restoration and repair. Also, some buildings have been sold to major companies or Government Departments who now use them as office accommodation. Whilst it is sad to see the loss of the original residential purpose, at least the new owners have the ability to appropriately maintain their new properties.

Court View at 126 Queens Road is one of my favourite Mumbai Art Deco buildings. Built between 1933 and 1939 it was designed by Maneckji Dalal, working for Merwanji Bana and Co. This partnership was responsible for many of the city's Art Deco riches. The facade is stunning with marble pillars at each side of the shaded entrance and a fabulous "frozen fountain" motif above. A symbol of eternal life, the frozen fountain was revived by Rene Lalique  whose designs at the 1925 Paris Exposition were partly responsible for the world wide explosion of interest in the Art Deco style. This motif was often used by Merwanji Bana and Co. I was able to sneak a look into the lobby and admire the geometric terrazzo floor which I believe has different patterns at each level, the rhythmic motifs on the balustrade and the deco details on the lift doors.

Court View, 1933-39, Maneckji Dalal
Court View, detail of balustrade
Green Fields, 1933-39, architect unknown
Green Fields, zig-zag motifs on balconies
Green Fields is another apartment block, just a few doors away from Court View at 134 Queens Road. Built between 1933 and 1939, the architect is unknown. Again, the entrance is impressive with stylised lettering and a stepped panel above the main door but the outstanding features here are the narrow balconies on the facade with their zigzag motifs.

Rajjab Mahal, 1933-39, Merwanji Bana and Co.
Rajjab Mahal - glazed stairwell
Rajjab Mahal - motifs on balustrade and windows
Rajjab Mahal - geometric sunburst motif on facade
Still on Queen's Road, Rajjab Mahal at number 144 is another stunner. Built between 1933 and 1939, it was also the work of Merwanji Bona and Co. The facade includes geometric sunburst panels echoed in the windows as well as two sets of blue and green stripes that rise from just above the entrance canopy all the way to the summit. The stripes stand at each side of the glazed stairwell which in turn features the frozen fountain motif. Fabulous. 

Next door at number 146, Shiv Shanti Bhivan makes impressive use of its corner location with a series of decorative features on the building's curve. These include green chevrons on a yellow background, semi-circular discs above the windows that also provide a little shade from the brilliant sunshine and a batwing design beneath the sills. Unfortunately these delights have been somewhat compromised by the addition of several air conditioning units just underneath the discs - although I do understand why the residents would want this facility! The block was constructed between 1934 and 1935 and is yet another example of Merwanji Bana and Co's work.

Shiv Shanti Bhuvan, 1934-35, Merwanji Bana and Co.
Shiv Shanti Bhuvan - corner decorative details
Empress Court, 1937-38, Ganjanan B. Mhatre
Empress Court, decorative balconies.
Empress Court at 142 Queens Road was built in 1937-38 and was the work of Gajana Baburao Mhatre. Mhatre was a significant influence in the development of modern Indian architecture. Born in 1902 into a relatively ordinary family, he studied architecture first in India under the direction of Claude Batley. This British architect was a modernist devotee sensitive to Indian architecture who introduced Mhatre to the concept of combining the two. Mhatre undertook further studies in London where he obtained RIBA accreditation before returning to India in 1931. He then began working for the Billimoria and Poonegar Company, making a major contribution to their design work. He was responsible for many residences in Mumbai including the spectacular Empress Court. A corner building, it uses its location to dramatic effect with a decorative glazed stairwell sweeping from the canopy above the main doorway to the summit, flanked by tiny almost Bauhaus style balconies at each level.

Still on Queens Road, Palm Court at number 152 is another of Mhatre's works. Currently undergoing renovation it was built between 1933 and 1939 and has an impressive entrance with semi-circular pillars, stylised lettering carrying the building name and colourful tiles in the lobby. Just above the entrance canopy, rows of chevron motifs form a concrete ventilation grill.  Two doors away at number 156, Sunshine, built at the same time as Palm Court was also designed by Mhatre. Its name is announced in both stylised lettering and by the image of the sun above the main entrance.

Palm Court, 1933-39, Ganjanan B. Mhatre
Sunshine, 1933-39, Ganjanan B. Mhatre
Moving away from Queens Road and on to Marine Drive,  Framroz Court at number 205 is one of my Mumbai favourites. Built between 1936 and 1943 and designed by Merwanji Bana and Co, the exterior has seen better days, is badly stained and in need of some tender loving care. Help may be at hand as there were signs of repair going on at one side of the building. Framroz has a dramatic and decorative glazed stairwell flanked by bay windows at each level and with sea facing balconies on one side. A number of these have now been enclosed. Day dreaming that I would like to have a flat here I went online to see how much it would set me back. I found a 3000 square feet apartment being offered for rental at 4.5 lakhs per month. If I'm not mistaken that is something in the region of £5,000. Ahem. Better start buying the lottery tickets again.

Framroz Court, 1936-43, Merwanji Bana and Co.
Regal Cinema, 1933, Charles Stephens.
Like many other cities Mumbai has a number of Art Deco cinemas. There are fewer than before as some have been demolished in favour of more lucrative developments. Others have been "modernised". This usually means gutting the interior of these single screen cinemas and transforming them into multiplex establishments, sacrificing the internal details but retaining the facade. Others are covered in hoardings for various products, making it difficult to admire their beauty but at least they are still there. 

The Regal on S.P. Mukherjee Chowk ( formerly Regal Circle) was one of the city's earliest Art Deco structures. Designed by British architect Charles Stephens it opened in 1933. Stephen's cinema was the epitome of modernity, constructed entirely from reinforced concrete, was fully air conditioned, and had an underground car park and lifts to bring patrons up to cinema level. Construction work was carried out by the Indian owned company Framji Sidhwa. The interiors were spectacular with sunray motifs and extensive glazing - all the work of Czech artist Karl Schara. The first film to be screened there was Laurel and Hardy's The Devil's Brother. A little faded looking today, the Regal still has a commanding presence on a busy junction, its vertical signage, stepped parapet and theatrical sculptures still striking despite the addition of large billboards.

Liberty Cinema, 1947-50, M.A. Ridley Abbott and John B. Fernandes.

The Liberty Cinema in New Marine Lines was built in 1947 at the very end of the Art Deco period in Mumbai. Its owner Habib Hoosein chose the name because construction coincided with Indian independence. The cinema remains in the ownership of the Hoosein family but struggles today due to competition from multiplexes and part of it is now rented out for office use. The interior has many deco details and the original wood panelling, mirrors and other features have been retained. Externally there is a magnificent corner fin, the bas relief of which resembles the keys of a piano. They really don't make them like this any more. Construction was initially under the direction of British architect M.A. Ridley Abbott who died one year into the project. Local architect John B. Fernandes took over and the work was completed according to Abbot's design. Waman M. Namjoshi designed and executed the interiors ready for the grand opening in 1950.

Several of the city's Art Deco cinemas were undergoing renovation or other works at the time of my visit. A good reason to return and see how things turned out.

A note on street names - Queens Road is now known as Maharashi Karve Road and Marine Drive has ben renamed Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose Road. I have used both versions in this post but primarily the old names to reflect the heyday of Mumbai's Art Deco style.

If you want to know more about Mumbai's Art Deco heritage, try Navin Ramani's superb book - Bombay Art Deco Architecture A Visual Journey (1930-53). I have relied on it for many of the details in this post.


You can see more pictures of India here.

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

A Postcard From India 5 - A Morning in Old Delhi


Old Delhi. Narrow streets. Very narrow streets, heaving with people, rickshaws, motorcycles, wheelbarrows, cows and donkeys. Noisy. Dirty. Magnificent. Off every narrow street there are several even narrower alleys. At first they seem a little dark and forbidding but inside many of them lie treasures - 18th century havelis, Jain temples, the best chaiwallah or snack seller in Delhi or someone who wants to tell you a story.

One man with a story is Mister Ramesh, owner of the New Gramophone House shop on the main Chandni Chowk Road. His family established the business in Lahore in 1930 but moved to Delhi in 1947 during partition when their home city became part of Pakistan. Old fashioned gramophone players are sold on the ground floor whilst the tiny first floor room is packed with vinyl records from days gone by.

I went there to look for some favourite Bollywood songs from the 1950's and early 1960's. He had them all. Very formal at first, once he realised that I was genuinely interested, he warmed up, drinks were sent for and he explained that after several hard years, business is showing sings of improvement. This is due in part to the efforts of several older Bollywood stars who no longer receive royalties from their films but can receive payments from sales of the soundtracks. He was very proud of his collection saying "If you can't find what you want here, you won't find it anywhere". I did find what I wanted and left with copies of the soundtracks of Pyaasa and Mr and Mrs 55 as well as a recording of some of Geeta Dutt's most famous songs.

Mr Ramesh, New Gramophone House
The School Run, Old Delhi style
Moving away into the lanes, the atmosphere changes. The streets are still crowded and it can be difficult to pass through them but perseverance brings rewards. Everywhere there is colour from the piled-up goods, window displays and the blue, pink, green and yellow painted walls that form the backdrop to street stalls. Even a humble banana stall can be a thing of beauty with the bright yellow of the fruit contrasting with the pale pink wall and the brightly coloured packets of snacks hanging behind. Taking a rickshaw ride though the lanes of Old Delhi is a great way to see all of this as well as to experience the friendliness of the people.  Expect lots of waving and shouts of "hello". One family squeezed onto a scooter looked up at my rickshaw and called out "good morning sir have a nice day" as they passed by. And speaking of rickshaws, look out for groups of school children piled onto them at various times of day as they go to and from school.  

Bananas with pink background
Green shirts and blue doors
Pink walled snack stand
Haveli Khazanchi
The shady lanes or "galis" leading from the old city's main arteries conceal some of its best kept secrets such as Haveli Khazanchi. Despite its terrible condition, this haveli (mansion), tucked away in the tiny Gali Khazanchi remains an impressive site. Once home to the Mughal Emperor's accountants, known as khazanchis, its central courtyard once boasted a marble pool. This is now drained but still overlooked by a series of beautiful balconies. Influential people including members of the royal family would have been received in the courtyard whilst accountants worked in the surrounding ground floor rooms. Today the haveli is crumbling but still striking due to its blue painted courtyard. One descendant of the khazanchis is said to still live in one of the ground floor apartments whilst others have been rented out, evidence of this being the several lines of washing on display! 

The entrance to the haveli is through two huge carved wooden doors, left open to the street. On the morning of my visit, the bright Delhi sunlight spilled through the door, casting pools of light into the dark alley to reveal two figures - a young man using a mobile phone in the courtyard itself and a street trader crouched in the alley, preparing his huge basket of poppadoms before hoisting it onto his head and moving on to begin the day's business. Old and New Delhi together.

Hawker outside Haveli Khazanchi
Nau Ghara
Nau Ghara
Nau Ghara is another small lane in the old city, leading off Kinari Bazaar Road. It contains nine beautifully maintained havelis (Nad Ghara means nine homes) all belonging to Jain traders and merchants. The Jains are a religious minority, whose beliefs include non-violence, non-absolutism and non-attachment to worldly goods. They were originally invited to Delhi by the Mughals due to being known for their enterprise skills. 

The homes in Nau Ghara feature traditional latticed balconies, marble staircases and imposing wooden doorways. The entrances are painted pink, blue and yellow and have  beautifully decorated surrounds featuring flowers and fruits in the Persian style. The three-storeyed Jewellers Temple stands at the end of the lane. It is perhaps the most beautiful of all the buildings in Nad Ghara, its walls covered in gold filigree and murals showing life in the Mughal courts as well as scenes from various scriptures. Photography is not permitted inside the temple. This and a list of other rules is handed by the caretaker to visitors for reading before they enter. The list is laminated and framed and includes instructions about smoking and removal of shoes as well as the forbidding of photography. Despite this, he was extremely friendly and wanted to chat about where I was from and what I was doing in India as well as telling me that he has a friend who lives near Queen Elizabeth!

The desire to chat politely with visitors was something I experienced throughout India in huge cities and in small villages where I stopped for tea en route to somewhere else. Some of the artisans and traders in Old Delhi were also keen to chat and to talk about their work. This included a pair of silversmiths working in one of the alleys adjacent to an excellent chaiwallah's stand where I enjoyed masala chai and a savoury snack whilst admiring their work. These craftsmen were proud of their skills, happy to be photographed and in return expected only my interest and response. It really is worth taking the time to stop and chat for a few minutes and to see something outside of our normal experience. For example, one trader removes the tiny coloured glass pieces sewn into clothes as decoration and uses them to make jewellery and other items. People sell their old clothes to him to make a little money and he in turn recycles the glass to earn his own living.

Entrance to Jain compound
Roof top restaurant
Nau Ghara is not the only Jain enclave within the old city. Noticing an open doorway leading into a tiled courtyard I was curious about what might be inside. Venturing in I entered an open courtyard surrounded by several three floors of apartments probably dating from the 19th century. The central courtyard was a shared area and the building was managed by a superintendent who kept a room on the ground floor from where he watched comings and goings. A list of rules for residents was displayed in the corridor leading to the courtyard including exhortations about paying the rent and not being noisy. Not much different to being at home then. Although not as grand as Nau Ghara, the courtyard was decorated with beautiful  ceramic tiles, imported from Europe according to contemporary tastes at the time of construction. The superintendent told me that there was a restaurant on the roof and to go and have a look. On reaching the summit, I was welcomed by a group of young people preparing lunch according to Jain requirements which are not only vegetarian, but also forbid the consuming of garlic, onions, potatoes and eggplants.

Jain compound courtyard
Courtyard tiles
It would be very easy to spend several days wandering through the lanes and bazaars of Old Delhi, enjoying the contrast between the bustle of the main streets and the tranquility of the lanes. The pictures below contrast those two extremes. I left the old city greedy for more. I will have to return.




You might also like A Postcard from India 2 - The People of Spice Alley, Mumbai's Lalbaug Market

You can see more pictures from India here